The arrest on 5 April of Peter Murrell, until recently the Chief Executive of the SNP, in connection with allegations about the possible misuse of funds collected by the SNP in 2017 to promote independence has given rise to much speculation about the possible impact of the story on the fortunes of the SNP (see, for example, here, here, and here). The story has hardly been out of the headlines since.
Yet until last Friday no Scotland-wide poll of vote intentions had been conducted and published since the dramatic pictures of the police presence outside the home that Mr Murrell shares with his wife, the former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, were first seen on voters’ television screens and social media feeds. Consequently, much of the speculation about the impact the story on the SNP’s popularity has occurred in a largely evidence-free environment.
Unfortunately, that poll came from a company, YouGov, that had not previously polled since the election of Humza Yousaf as SNP leader. Their previous poll was in early March, in the midst of the leadership contest. It thus becomes impossible from that new poll alone to disentangle any impact that the police inquiries on the SNP’s finances may have had from that of the final stages of the SNP leadership contest.
That said, we might note that support for the SNP registered in the YouGov poll was a little less than that registered by the four polls that were conducted by other companies shortly after Mr Yousaf was declared the victor in the SNP leadership contest. According to YouGov, 37% said that they would vote for the SNP in an immediate Westminster election, two points down on the 39% recorded on average in the polls conducted after the leadership election. However, at 28%, support for Labour was as much as four points below that registered in the post-Yousaf success polls. Thus, while the SNP might have lost a little (further) ground in the wake of the adverse publicity about the party’s finances, it was by no means clear from this poll that Labour had benefitted accordingly. (And much the same conclusion could be drawn from the figures for Holyrood vote intention.)
There is, however, another source to which we can look for evidence. Since Mr Murrell’s arrest, several polls of voting intention across Britain as a whole have been conducted. In most cases the detailed tables that the pollsters in question have released show the current Westminster voting intentions of their respondents living in Scotland. Such tabulations come with many a health warning. Most Britain-wide polls interview only around 150 or so people in Scotland, while their data are not weighted to ensure that the Scotland portion of the sample alone is representative. Consequently, the figures for Scotland can fluctuate considerably from one poll to the next. However, these polls make it possible to make a direct comparison, albeit caveated, between support for the parties now and where the parties stood immediately after Mr Yousaf became leader.
To date, tables providing separate figures for Scotland have been published for ten Britain-wide polls of Westminster vote intention whose interviewing began after 5 April. In each case these polls were conducted by companies who also conducted a Britain-wide poll between 28 March, that is, the day after Humza Yousaf was elected leader of the SNP, and 4 April, that is, the day before Mr Murrell’s arrest. Table 1 shows both the average level of support for the parties in Scotland in the post-Murrell polls, and the ratings they recorded after Mr Yousaf’s election. It also shows the average level of Westminster support for the parties in four Scotland-wide polls undertaken in the short period between Mr Yousaf’s success and Mr Murrell’s arrest.
We should note first that in the days after Mr Yousaf’s election the average level of support for the parties in Scotland in these Britain-wide polls (which between them interviewed 778 people in Scotland) was not dissimilar to that recorded in the four Scotland-only polls that were conducted at the same time, though at 29% Labour were three points down on their average rating in those polls. That suggests that collectively the figures that those polls have obtained more recently do provide us with at least some indication of the likely scale and direction of any change in the level of support for the parties that has occurred in the wake of the recent police inquiries into the SNP’s finances.
The more recent figures in these polls, based on the responses given by 1,324 people in Scotland, suggest, as did YouGov’s Scottish poll, that there has been a further fall in SNP support, following on from that already recorded in the polls conducted after Mr Yousaf’s election. However, in contrast to YouGov’s poll, these polls do suggest that Labour have advanced further and that, as a result they may now be close to being neck and neck with the SNP in terms of support across Scotland as a whole. Such an outcome could well deliver Labour the twenty seats that it has been reported that the party is hoping to secure in Scotland at the next general election.
That said, a two to four-point fall in SNP support is well short of representing a meltdown. It looks as though the already diminished loyalty of Yes supporters to the SNP may well have been strained further by the revelations of the past fortnight. However, so far at least, it seems that many of them are still willing to stick with the party that leads Scotland’s nationalist movement.